When Words Aren’t Enough: Ned Yost and the Progression of a Skid


September 24, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost (3) in the dugout during the game against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Despite missing contributions from expected key contributors, the Royals were 17-10 and fans were watching the scoreboard, hoping for a Detroit Tigers loss. It felt right. It felt legitimate. Good pitching, Consistent defense. Timely hitting.

All the hallmarks for what the traditional team does when they’re “playing the right way”.

And the hope was that once the expected contributors woke up, things would get even better.

Since then, the Royals have won four games and lost seventeen after Monday’s game. The offense has scored 3.52 runs per game, benefiting from two big games in Los Angeles, without which, they’d have averaged just 2.84 runs per game. Ervin Santana and James Shields pitched two great games with a couple of mistakes and had nothing to show for it. Jeremy Guthrie had a no-hitter on Saturday and was still losing 1-0 after five innings and you could half expect the Royals to get him the no-hitter but still lose the game.

Ned Yost will take a lot of the heat for this, fair or unfair, because he’s the man in charge. That’s how it works out. He’s the first person the media turns to when they need answers.

Over the course of this stretch, Yost has grown increasingly testy and defensive. He’s frustrated for sure, but it strikes me more as scrambling for excuses. He’s told everyone to be patient (but the team is aiming to win now). He’s told the media that all he can do is be supportive and positive, and through it all, he’s refuted any question that maybe, just maybe, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer aren’t the players we thought they were.

But things weren’t always so rocky. Every losing streak starts with one loss. Every freefall starts with the first step off the cliff. So how did we get here?

It started on May 6th, a game which is now known as “The Pull”. James Shields had thrown eight solid innings of shutout baseball, but Yost pulled him in favor of Greg Holland. Many howled in disagreement. Many didn’t. I don’t think it was an obvious move to leave Shields in nor was it a no-brainer to bring in Holland.

Of course, Holland wasn’t sharp and gave up the tying run and Kelvin Herrera gave up the go-ahead run in extra innings and the Royals lost, scoring just one run for Shields.

But while the loss hurt, what was worse was Yost’s explanation for making the move.

"My mind-set is if I send (Shields) back (for the ninth), and he gives up the tying run or the go-ahead run — which I didn’t think he was going to do — I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night. – Ned Yost, May 8th in the Kansas City Star"

Yost has often left in a struggling pitcher for too long, often in cases where he’s trying to get through the fifth inning to qualify for a win. Just two days before, Jeremy Guthrie had finished a 2-0 win for his first career shutout and was left in after eight innings to finish it. For many, it felt like a double standard to manage for achievements and not for wins.

The Royals start a series at Baltimore but score just three runs in each of the first two games. This prompts Yost to shift the batting order. The Royals win 6-2 and hit three homers. It looked like maybe he was on to something. But judgments can’t be made on one game. Yost pointed out that he wanted to let the lineup simmer. “It needs to settle in,” he said.

That was on Thursday. Before the weekend was over, he’d already swapped out the top of the order.

Then he started to play Elliot Johnson more over Chris Getz and Jarrod Dyson over Jeff Francoeur, but he promised it wasn’t a platoon.

Then the Royals got swept by the Yankees, including an awful showing against Hiroki Kuroda where they couldn’t help but swing early and often. Ned Yost preached staying positive. Things would change on the road trip.

"“It’s the ebb and flow of a Major League season,” manager Ned Yost said. “You have ups and you have downs and you’ve got to be able to weather the downs. You’ve got to stay positive and you’ve got to continue to keep working. We could very easily go on the road and turn it around and have a big road trip. That’s what we’re looking forward to doing.”"

So did they?

The Royals took two games out of three in Los Angeles, scoring 11 runs in Game 1 and 9 in Game 2. It’s the kind of offensive explosion that justified the lineup moves:

"“We needed to get a win,” manager Ned Yost said. “It was one week. We knew the offense would click sooner or later*, and it did tonight. Billy had been struggling, but it was just a matter of time before he got back on track.” – Yost after Game 1“We had some really good at-bats. It was a good offensive night. A big third inning. That was the game for us, and it started with Dyson going 0-2 and then coaxing a walk.” – Yost after Game 3"

So far so good. The Royals were 20-17, still a bad 3-7 stretch, but after taking a road series, things looked like they were lining up. Yost had held a meeting about getting good at bats and it had paid off.

We know now that the Royals have gone 1-10 since that day and so much if it has been due to the offense. This is where things start to turn. The offense dropped out against Oakland, scoring just five runs in three games. All the positives built up from the Angels series were dashed after losing leads in two straight games while scoring just two total runs.

The pressure seemed to be amping up. The Royals were still .500 at 20-20 after the Oakland series with Kansas City headed to Houston after, but there were significant questions on offense prompting many to ask about Mike Moustakas and Yost to spout the answer that will probably stick with him from here on.

"Maybe when we get home, I can go to the third base tree and pick another third baseman."

Yost continued to discuss how his experience would tell him that you had to be patient. That you can’t expect these guys to just start out hitting well. Later in the week on the Danny Parkins show, he doubled down on this idea:

"I’ve seen two young players have instant success and never look back. Chipper Jones was one and Ryan Braun was the other. Every other good young player that came up to be productive, to be an All-Star type player, that we targeted that was going to be a very, very good player always took a year or two – ya know two and a half years – before they finally got to the production that we all expect them to deliver. … Some of these things you just have to wait out. – Ned Yost on the Drive with Danny Parkins, May 21st"

Notice the little catch there. He was going to say one or two years but must have realized that Moustakas has played four months in 2011, a full 2012 and two months of 2013. So let’s buy him some more time. Yost also mentioned that Moustakas needed to see some success, then in the same breath noted that he didn’t need to go to Omaha because he can’t face big league pitching there. I’m of the mind that there’s not a lot of benefit to parking a player in the minors just to get them to hit minor league pitching, but in Moose’s case, he’s mechanically off and seeing no success. He needs to fix his swing and regain confidence, and neither are things he can do effectively in the big leagues.

The next day, he told the Kansas City Star that they’d given Moustakas “mental days” off in 2012.

"“Last year, when he struggled,” Yost said, “I mean he was a mess. There were times when you’d have to sit him for a ‘mental day.’ This year, he’s been in a great frame of mind.”"

Apr 9, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas (8) hits a single in the first inning of the game against the Minnesota Twins at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

That was on May 22. On May 26, Moustakas sat against right-handed pitcher Jerome Williams, a journeyman spot starter. In the final game of a four game sweep in Kansas City at the hands of the Angels, Billy Butler was ejected. Mike Moustakas stayed on the bench while Jeff Francoeur went in to face a right-hander. With right-hander Ernesto Frieri on in the ninth, Francoeur again hit while Moustakas sat.

So it’s clear, that despite talking about patience and getting him opportunities for success, Yost isn’t comfortable with him in the lineup right now. They’re now saying it’s quad tightness. Pardon my cynicism but I think that’s a deflection from the question of “why isn’t Moustakas in the lineup? Have you lost confidence in him?” They seem to be doing nothing to get him right. He sits rather than goes to Omaha. He’ll ask for more at bats, but won’t look at tape (like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler). As Greg Hall has said, he “needs a coach and not an enabler”.

But through all of this, Yost has preached patience. It takes time. Parkins had asked Yost “how can [fans] be guilty of wanting instant gratification when the organization told them it’s time to win now?” Yost had no response but to repeat the mantra of asking for patience.

Parkins asked where the power was that Yost promised after 2012 had ended. Yost said that the Royals would see some power from the lineup “as soon as we can get to have an attack where each individual hitter is more patient and more disciplined at the plate, hunting out those pitches, waiting on those pitches and then not missing them when they get them, that’s when you’ll start to see our power numbers jump up.” Simple! But again, it’s another appeal to patience.

Over and over. Patience. More time is needed.

Apr 14, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost (3) during batting practice before a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

It gives one the impression that they don’t even know what the problem is much less how to correct it. Parkins asked Yost what the team’s offensive philosophy is and Yost’s response was to sigh and say “that’s a good question”. He was asked in a postgame presser after losing to Houston about making changes and stated that he wouldn’t make decisions after a loss like that because emotion gets in the way. Fair enough.

Three days and three losses later? Still not ready to make decisions.

"“Games like that are hard. Emotions are high. It’s best to sit and think things through (and not) make snap decisions.” – Yost after losing on May 25"

As a concept, I can’t disagree with that, but at this stage, with the Royals seeing their win-now season going down the drain, changes are clearly necessary and avoiding making those decisions helps nobody. Hard decisions have to be made and if Yost can’t make them, someone will make them for him.

This handling of pressure and constantly shifting attention makes me wonder if it’s something the team is picking up on. Their leader doesn’t seem to know what needs to be done, so they’re left rudderless.

"“There’s nothing I can do personally to turn it around except stay positive and stay supportive.” – from Sam Mellinger’s examination of Yost’s firing in Milwaukee and what he’s learned now."

Before Sunday’s game, Yost met with Royals owner David Glass for 15-25 minutes. Josh Vernier relayed that the discussion via Twitter:

If what most think is an absentee owner is taking notice, things are getting really bad. And through it all, Yost merely talks about staying positive.

There’s nothing positive about a 4-16 stretch (and at this point, the Royals have lost to the Cardinals, so it’s 4-17).

Dec 3, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost answers questions from the media during the Major League Baseball winter meetings at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. Mandatory credit: Don McPeak-USA Today Sports

All Yost is offering are words which pack as much punch as the Royals offense. If he knows how to fix things, he’s not telling anyone. Maybe he’s just caught in the crossfire – the manager is usually the first scapegoat after all, and Yost isn’t taking the field himself. But at a point, when you’ve went from first place to a complete tailspin, that has to fall on someone. Is it always fair? No. But that’s baseball.

Yost is the leader of this team. They take their philosophy from him. Their approach comes from him. He’s there to point out what corrections he wants to see, and whatever adjustments he’s advising aren’t taking. If the players won’t make those adjustments, then that’s another issue and an indication that he’s lost the clubhouse. That goes beyond any tactical shortcomings.

There’s a disconnect somewhere. For instance:

Yost doesn’t have answers. He has platitudes. He says just enough to seem like he’s doing something, but nothing’s changing. Nothing’s improving. Changes have to be made. Either that’s Yost being removed, or it’s Moustakas and Hosmer going to the minors to correct their swings.

"You remember the good start and you remember where we’re at now. It’s like both ends of the spectrum. We were really doing a nice job now all of a sudden we’re struggling like a son of a gun. We gotta find a way to get back to doin’ a nice job. – Yost after Sunday’s loss."

It doesn’t just change overnight, no matter what Dayton Moore hopes. It takes more than words to turn it around. Explanations aren’t enough.